Lessons from the Sukkah

I have just about finished it. It is one of the few things that I ever build. I have been building them for almost fifty years now. I have built them with wood, with pvc pipes, with steel, threaded poles. I have covered them with corn stalks and lattice work, fir branches and grape vines. The walls have been wood planks and canvas cloth, tarps and none at all. And they have been filled with the most astonishing guests and the most amazing lessons. It is a non-permanent dwelling in which we have permanently dwelt for close to four thousand years. It speaks to our nomadic beginning and our agricultural influences. It informs our desire to reach out to the poor and the powerful with humble reminders and reminders of humble beginnings. Within this flimsy shelter flows some of the most powerful energy in the universe. Indeed the very model of the universe is shaken within its walls. The Sukkah connects heaven and earth and points to our passion for peace. Sukkot speak to us

Sukkot first spoke to us in Torah. There it is called “Hag HaAsif,” the festival of the harvest (Exodus 23:16). Harvest festivals are all about thanksgiving. We have made it through another year and, when our stores were running low, we looked to the harvest time. Now the harvest has come, our stores are restored and we celebrate and thank G in joy. The theme of joy is echoed in the name for Sukkot given by the sages of old. They referred to this holiday as Zman Simhateinu, Our Joyous Time (more traditionally, the season of our joy). Few of us are farmers anymore and know the earth-connectedness of planting and harvesting. We touch those moments in small ways. On T’u B’Shvat I would plant parsley and horseradish to harvest on Pesah. And the feeling of purpose and pride far exceeded my agricultural acumen. Sukkot speaks to us.

Sukkot speaks to us of a power that far exceeds the agricultural holiday of TaNaCh . Sukkot reaches into our historical collective and elevates our memories of the wandering nomad. Rebbe Akiba and Rebbe Eliezer argued (as Rabbis are wont to do) regarding whether the Sukkot that we build are reminders of the tents in which we lived in the desert for 40 years or of the “clouds of glory” that protected us during that Midbar march. But both spoke to the mindfulness of memory. We physically recreate a reminder of that time of testing. Sukkot speaks to us.

Sukkot speaks to us even in the building of the temporary and temporal dwelling place that we call the Sukkah. Each Sukkah has its own lessons to teach us. This flimsy, floppy, waving in the wind, frail and fragile form reminds us how tenuous is our grasp on survival. And yet in Jewish lore, the Sukkah is a stronger structure than the ones made of mortar and stone for it is a structure of the heart and the soul. Every once in a while that point is driven home to us. I remember as a youngster in Indianapolis the Sukkah that we built on the patio outside the chapel of our Synagogue. My father, (zt’l) was the Rabbi and took pride in the fine Sukkah that the congregation built every year. One year on the day before Sukkot, nature threatened to storm on our Sukkah. I remember that he and the maintenance man, Harvey Gatti and I put up some plastic sheeting over the Sukkah to protect it from the rains. The next day when we showed up at shul, the weight of the rain from the night before bowed the Sukkah almost to the breaking point. After staring in shock for a moment my father and I began poking holes in the plastic sheeting to let the water through. Then, soaked, we sat and laughed at our own foolishness. We had put up human made plastic to protect from nature, the schah , the covering for the Sukkah brought from nature. We had covered corn stalks with plastic sheeting to protect them from the rain. Sukkot speaks to us.

Sukkot speaks to us from fond memory. I fondly remember our youth group travelling to Dr. Efrymson’s farm to gather schah. We would glean his field as he read to us from TaNaCh the passages of helping the poor, the homeless, the stranger. He read those powerful pieces of righteousness that are part and parcel of the Jewish path as we imitated the needy, gathering what was needed to build our sacred Sukkah. Sukkot speaks to us.

Sukkot speak to us of the dream of peace. We read in our prayers every evening, “UFros Aleinu Sukkot Shlomecha!” “Spread over us the Sukkot of Your Peace!” Peace is fragile and beautiful and needs our constant and consistent attention. Through the sweet smelling living roof of our Sukkah of Peace, we should be shaded from the heat of war and yet we should be able to see the peaceful stars of evening. The Sukkah of peace does not need a masterful builder, it needs all who are in need. Building a Sukkah is an ego-less act. Building the Sukkah of Peace requires us to drop our egos before we pick up our tools. Sukkot speak to us.

Sukkot speaks to us our guests. We traditionally invite guests into the Sukkah. We invite friends and family and we invite the celestial ancestors.
On the 1st night, we invite Avraham and Miriam for the Sefirah lesson of Hesed, compassion.
On the 2nd night we invite Yitzhak and Leah for the Sefirah lesson of Gevurah power.
On the 3rd night, we invite Yaakov and Hannah for the Sefirah lesson of Tiferet beauty.
On the 4th night we invite Moshe and Rebeccah for the Sefirah lesson of Netzah victorious doing.
On the 5th night we invite Aharon and Sarah for the Sefirah lesson of Hod joyous being.
On the 6th night we invite Yosef and Tamar for the Sefirah lesson of Yesod centering.
On the 7th night we invite David and Rachel for the Sefirah lesson of Malchut the council for this realm.
These guests remind us that at every holiday table are the invited guests who are beyond the vision of our eyes. Yet their presence is seen within our hearts and felt within souls. The Sukkah builders who came before us, sit in our Sukkot with us and we are tearfully grateful. Sukkot speaks to us.

Sukkot speaks to us of our place on our planet and in our universe. It speaks of this realm and of others. The Lulav and Etrog form the sacred sword for cutting through the mundane, which in Hebrew is ‘hol’. As we lift our Lulav of light saber, we slash through the hol revealing the holy. The Etrog symbolizes heart, the willow is the mouth, the myrtle, the eyes, the palm, the spine. We bring together heart, spine, eyes and mouth. With these do we slice through the hol of complacency and reveal the holy light. Even the manner in which we strike enlightens our reality. We shake or swing or slash the Lulav in the four directions, then up and then down. We stand in the center of a universe that we create with the Lulav. The four spatial directions of this realm are marked. Then we connect heaven and earth as we stand in the center of our newly created universe where hol and holy become one. Sukkot speaks to us.

Sukkot speaks to us of Mitzvah, of sacred connection. It is a Mitzvah/Sacred Connection to dwell in the Sukkah for 7 days. If you sleep there every night or simply break bread in this temporary dwelling, the opportunity for sacred connection is yours. It is a Mitzvah/Sacred Connection to have or be guests in a Sukkah. Sharing in wholeness elevates the hol-ness of our daily lives. It is a Mitzvah/Sacred Connection to shake the Lulav. We grasp our agricultural sword to cut the knot of complacency and elevate our actions through the 6 sacred directions, centering ourselves within them, the sacred 7th. Sukkot speaks to us.

Sukkot speaks to us. It asks you to join with other tribal folk for this tribal festival of schah and awe. I hope that you will join us on October 17 at 1830 hours for a special ‘Hallah-day’ as we stand in the center of our guests, all who were and all who will be, in oneness, under the Sukkah.